The Supreme Court heard a case last week about the use of “fleeting expletives” and brief nudity appearing on public broadcast television — stations like ABC, CBS or FOX. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently punishes networks for including any brief scenes deemed obscene in their programming, whether they are scripted or not.
This means if a streaker should hurdle across the field during a NFL playoff game this weekend or if an actor accepting an Oscar should drop the F-bomb in excitement at winning, the networks will be subject to a hefty fine.
This is going too far.
“If these are public airwaves, the government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency,” Justice Antonin Scalia said during the hearings.
I understand, and partially agree, but these draconian measures the FCC is employing are too strong. I am all for protecting the virgin ears and eyes of children from the obscenity of reality, but it is unfair to punish the networks for things they cannot control.
It was decided long ago that the public broadcasting stations, both on TV and radio, were subject to stricter government scrutiny than cable, satellite or Internet stations. The idea being that you choose to purchase the latter options, while public airwaves are already there for you to tune in to.
Therefore, the FCC has the right to ensure public programming is kept appropriate for all audiences because obscenity and nudity have long been determined to be unprotected forms of speech and expression – unless they qualify as art.
Problem is, the networks cannot control when Bono or Cher are going to swear on live television. While I agree the FCC can still punish them for scripted obscenities, such as the nude scene from “NYPD Blue” the justices examined during the hearings, there is no call for punishment in unscripted cases.
Say, for example, we are getting live coverage from a war zone on the national news. If the reporter were to suddenly come under attack, some strong words, if not some strong images, too, are likely to be used. Under the current set of rules the FCC would be well within its right to fine whatever network that news broadcast appeared on.
Scalia might call that upholding a “modicum of decency,” but I call it dishonoring the brave journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to inform the public.
Live incidents of questionable content are uncontrollable. To punish the networks with anything more than a simple slap on the wrists is unfathomable. The financial punishment does not fit the crime. It is enough to cause the great verbal offender George Carlin to roll over in his grave.
While we still wait for a decision to be rendered, based on the comments made by Scalia and his fellow justices it appears the Supreme Court intends to uphold the FCC’s right to distribute swift cruel punishment. Thankfully, we can still turn to cable and satellite television to get all the obscenity our hearts desire.